By Dan Eggen and Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, July 25, 2007
Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales testified yesterday that top congressional leaders from both parties agreed in March 2004 to continue a classified surveillance activity that Justice Department officials had deemed illegal, a contention immediately disputed by key Democratic lawmakers.
Rep. Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (W.Va.), who were briefed on the program at the time, said there was no consensus that it should proceed. Three others who were at the meeting also said the legal underpinnings of the program were never discussed.
"He once again is making something up to protect himself," Rockefeller said of the embattled attorney general.
The dispute came as Gonzales weathered one of the most contentious and hostile congressional hearings seen during the Bush administration. Democrats and the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee accused him of repeatedly misleading them and warned that he could face perjury charges if he lied to the panel.
"I do not find your testimony credible, candidly," said Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), who became visibly angry at several points during his exchanges with Gonzales. "The committee's going to review your testimony very carefully to see if your credibility has been breached to the point of being actionable."
Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) told Gonzales bluntly: "I don't trust you."
The session was a political low point for the attorney general, whose reputation has eroded over the past seven months in Congress, in public opinion polls and among many of his own employees.
Gonzales has found himself in the middle of a running controversy over his department's firing of nine U.S. attorneys, and the White House has refused to provide documents and testimony that House and Senate lawmakers have demanded. Gonzales has also been accused of making misleading statements about issues including FBI civil liberties abuses and a warrantless surveillance program run by the National Security Agency.
Specter appeared to raise the stakes for Gonzales and the administration yesterday by suggesting that a special prosecutor may be needed to file contempt charges against the White House officials who have refused to honor congressional subpoenas.
Much of yesterday's to-and-fro involved a controversial episode on the evening of March 10, 2004, when Gonzales and then-White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. visited the hospital bed of then-Attorney General John D. Ashcroft, who was recovering from gallbladder surgery.
Gonzales, providing his first detailed public account of the incident, testified that the visit followed an emergency meeting that afternoon with the "Gang of Eight," consisting of the bipartisan leaders of the House, the Senate and both intelligence committees. Gonzales said the congressional leaders had agreed that a classified surveillance program aimed at terrorists should continue despite objections by James B. Comey, the acting attorney general during Ashcroft's illness.
"Mr. Comey had informed us that he would not approve the continuation of a very important intelligence activity, despite the fact the department had repeatedly approved those activities over a period of over two years," Gonzales said. "The consensus in the room from the congressional leadership is that we should continue the activities, at least for now. . . . We felt it important that the attorney general knew about the views and the recommendations of the congressional leadership."
Gonzales said that he and Card "never had any intent to ask anything of him if we did not feel that he was competent," adding that Ashcroft was "lucid" and did most of the talking during the meeting. Gonzales acknowledged that, as Comey testified, Ashcroft declined to overrule Comey.
Gonzales's testimony differed from an account Comey provided to the same committee in May. Comey said that he had rushed to the hospital after learning that Gonzales was headed there, and that he believed Gonzales and Card sought "to take advantage of a very sick man." Comey did not mention any discussion in the room about the congressional leadership's views.
Pelosi, Rockefeller and former senator Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.), who were members of the Gang of Eight at the time, also sharply disputed Gonzales's description of the White House meeting. Daschle said in a statement that he could not recall the meeting and is "quite certain that at no time did we encourage the AG or anyone else to take such actions." He added: "This appears to be another attempt to rewrite history."
Rockefeller said that lawmakers were never asked to give the program their approval and that administration officials' infrequent briefings about it were short and involved "virtually no questions."
The Bush administration has repeatedly refused to describe which classified program was at issue, but officials have said privately that it is related to a warrantless counterterrorism surveillance effort by the NSA, which the president confirmed after aspects of it were leaked to the public. Gonzales has said several times that the disputed program was not precisely the same as what Bush confirmed.
Three people who were present, but who declined to be identified discussing classified activities, said the March 2004 meeting in the White House Situation Room was an operational briefing on the NSA surveillance program. The legal underpinnings of the program were never discussed, they said, but the congressional group raised no objections and agreed that the program should go forward, they said.
The issue came to a head during a heated exchange between Gonzales and Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) about a statement Gonzales made at a news conference in June, suggesting that the hospital visit did involve the NSA program that Bush confirmed. Gonzales testified that he misspoke and cited clarifying remarks that one of his aides sent to The Washington Post several days after the news conference.
At the hearing, Gonzales said he intends to stay on as attorney general to "fix the problems" that occurred on his watch, including the improper use of political considerations in hiring career employees. He declined to answer questions related to the prosecutor firings and the legal dispute between Congress and the White House, saying he was recused from discussing those issues because of an ongoing investigation by his department.
Gonzales received relatively little assistance from the handful of Republicans who showed up yesterday. The lone Republican who stayed for the duration was Specter, whose commentary was as harsh as that of Democrats. Specter's opening question was about whether the hospital visit concerned the NSA program, prompting Gonzales's first attempt to convince his listeners that it did not.
"Mr. Attorney General, do you expect us to believe that?" Specter asked incredulously.
Staff writer Walter Pincus contributed to this report.